Fact or fiction: Marijuana makes you jump from buildings?

With Canada’s inadequate education on cannabis in the cross-hairs, it’s clear that the next run of drug programs need to be more balanced.

Rand Teed, a certified drug counsellor with almost 50 years of experience, is precisely the type of facilitator that students will be getting to know in the coming years. “We’ve had reefer madness, we’ve had the egg-as-the-brain, and it taught kids nothing,” recalls Teed.

Teed’s Regina-based program “Drug Class” is often administered through sessions with Canadian students, almost a quarter of whom reported having consumed cannabis for recreational purposes over the past year as per a study released in 2018. “One of the classes teaches students about serotonin and dopamine availability, and how cannabis can affect those in the long term,” he adds. Though known to stimulate feelings of pleasure and well-being at the time of consumption, Teed says cannabis can sometimes disturb the brain’s reward system to limit access to those chemicals.

Teed also touches upon the growing body of research suggesting that cannabis can hijack crucial brain development that occurs in adolescence, affecting traits like decision-making and emotional development.

In 2018, experts predict students as the source of Canada’s cannabis literacy. “What we’ve heard from consultations with students is that they want to hear both sides of the story, the good and the bad,” says Dr. Amy Porath, director of Research and Policy at the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA).

Porath is referring to CCSA’s new Cannabis Communication Guide, created with Health Canada, to prepare students for legalization by removing the age-old biases. “The ‘scare-tactic’ approaches were fragmented at best,” she says. “If you only present one side of the story, young people see through it every time.”

Those “reefer madness” scare tactics, as many will remember, featured a heavy focus on the negative effects of cannabis; many of which were exaggerated to leave children and young adults with the impression that “marijuana makes you jump from buildings”.

Since the negative focus of previous programs left students wary of drug education, on the whole, Porath says the results of CCSA’s consultations with students will be the basis of the curriculum going forward. Building the curriculum, Porath says CCSA researchers sat down with youth and counsellors across the country last fall to determine the extent of their knowledge about cannabis, why they or their peers might use the plant, and how they would like to be spoken to about it. CCSA even had the young consultees “sign off” on the syllabus before giving it the green light.

Based on their responses, a program was calibrated to effectively delve into the reasons and methods by which people consume cannabis, and to dispel some of the more pervasive myths on both sides; that it isn’t addictive, that it causes cancer, that it cures cancer, and of course, that it’s a gateway to harder narcotics. “They’ve also heard that it makes you a better driver,” Porath says. “That’s as untrue as jumping from buildings.” In coordination with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s promise to keep drugs away from kids, she says using tangible evidence to demonstrate cannabis’ effects on the developing brain will be central to the program’s success.

Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP) has been pushing for sensible youth education on cannabis since its inception more than 10 years ago. The organization, which takes its cue from youth chapters, recently published its Sensible Cannabis Education Youth Toolkit; applying a more conversational approach to cannabis than its more direct CCSA counterpart.

CSSDP advisor Dr. Jenna Valleriani explains that non-judgemental, evidence-based teaching is core to the toolkit’s messaging. “Research shows that authoritarian and fear-based approaches to cannabis conversations alienate young people. They undermine the credibility of the education.”

The toolkit is meant for use by teachers and parents and describes how to talk to students about marijuana while offering information that CSSDP says is key to the conversation.

CCSA’s 10 Principles for Cannabis Education

  • In-class and session-based education must be delivered by a trained facilitator.
  • The education should start early, in some cases around 10 to 12 years of age.
  • Content must be age appropriate. Ten-year-olds don’t respond to the same teaching methods as teenagers.
  • Special attention must be given to cultural factors regarding both consumption and legal enforcement, such as racism, social justice, and overarching stigmas.
  • Conversations should address youth who may already be consuming cannabis, focusing on reducing harmful habits rather than complete abstinence.
  • Parents and guardians should be given tools to have effective conversations with youth about cannabis.
  • Education must be ongoing, with multiple resources available to youth long after awareness sessions have ended.
  • Programs should maintain non-judgemental, open dialogue and make use of interactive learning.
  • The curriculum should provide meaningful inclusion to all youth, regardless of their abilities or health care needs.
  • The syllabus must be based upon empirical, evidence-based information, not anecdotal or experiential.

Though educators are pleased to find the Liberal government receptive to common sense programs, Teed says big marijuana’s cure-all narrative is one of few things standing between students and the facts. “They’re thinking it cures things it doesn’t,” he says. “And that’s why we need to be out there.”

 

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